Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How to Create a Rockin' Supplier Advisory Board

I've had the opportunity to sit on multiple advisory boards for our suppliers. I'm always grateful for the opportunity to help in this capacity and I take my participation seriously. I've been asked recently for advice on the structure and operation of advisory boards so I'm writing it down here. Keep in mind, these are my opinions and not everybody agrees with me, but I hope this helps you in creating or modifying your plans.


Purpose

The purpose of the advisory board should be to seek the advise of partners.  If that is not your purpose,  save your money.  Advisory boards should NOT be used for recruiting efforts, to increase activity with a partner, or to advertise to them. Relationships can be enhanced by an in-person visit, but your primary goal should not be to enhance relationships.  Your primary goal should be to seek the advice of partners who represent the population of partners with whom you're trying to engage.


Members

Whom to Invite

Select members of your board who are capable of giving you the advise you seek. Don't choose names just because they're known in the industry. There are many capable people in our industry you haven't yet met and their advise is probably better and more insightful than the usual suspects. Consider the following when selecting your board membership:
  
  1. Business Model - Be sure your board members represent the model you seek.  A typical mistake is to overload the board with master agents.  While they may represent sales volume, they won't be able to give you the "feet on the street" insight you seek. Select a collection of direct selling partners, master agents, and solution providers if that mix represents the partner population you seek to engage in the market.  
  2. Role - Select representatives of the partner company who will be able to speak to the topics you wish to address. The president of the company may not be able to advise you on operational and product specific issues and likewise, the operations manager may not be able to advise you on market conditions and trends. The types of issues you plan to address on the board should dictate the role of the people you invite.  
  3. Commitment - Invite only those partners who can commit to active participation. I suggest not allowing individuals on your board who sit on two or more boards because you won't get the focus and input you seek. I also suggest a signed document at the beginning of their term asking them to commit to attendance and preparation for each meeting.  
I've recently seen suppliers form second advisory boards to allow focus on a different area. Some have been split by role (executive/operations) and some have been split by model (master agency/direct selling agency) This is a smart move because it allows focus though it may be cost prohibitive to some.  If you cannot form two boards but seek separate input set up subcommittees that meet periodically via conference call to address specific topics.  

Rotation of Members

Being asked to serve on a board should not be a lifelong calling. Establish a policy of having members on the board for a set amount of time. This keeps the ideas fresh and will also be enjoyed by the members of your advisory board as they'll be able to meet and network with new faces.  Invited members will also understand  their seat is occupied for a finite amount of time and they should maximize their input during that time.

If you don't set up an established policy of terms it'll be difficult to kick off that annoying board member who doesn't contribute without singling out him or her as the only loser who's been asked to leave the board.

Meeting Frequency

I suggest meeting quarterly and meeting in person every other time.  Your dates would vary but it would look something like this:

February - In Person
April       - Conference Call
July        - In Person
October  - Conference Call

Send out an inquiry a few months before the in-person meeting to gauge availability of your board.

Holding one of the in-person meetings at the company headquarters is advisable because it gives partners a view of the inside but perhaps more importantly, it makes it easy for company executives to visit with the advisory board which always helps the visibility of the channel organization and also gives partners a feeling of the executive commitment toward the channel..

It's tempting to have one of the in-person meetings at an industry trade show to save on travel expenses but I recommend against this. You will not have people's focus and quite possibly not have their attendance either.


Agenda

I recommend the following agenda:

Day 1
3pm Meeting
6pm Dinner

Day 2 
8am Meeting
2pm Conclusion

If partners are traveling from far distances you may not be able to hold the initial meeting on Day 1 due to late arrivals. In this case you can simply hold the dinner and have a slightly longer meeting on Day 2. The reason I like the above agenda is because it breaks the meeting into smaller pieces and only requires 1 overnight. If you want to have an optional event (golf, baseball game, etc.) you can hold it before or after the event and those who are interested can participate without impacting your meeting. I do suggest you make it optional and don't feel obligated to hold such an event.  Most people are happy to serve on your board because they find it valuable to invest in your future and have their voice heard. Extra incentives are nice, but not necessary. Again, this is my opinion and others may vary.

Topics

Split the meeting into categories you want to discuss. Include things like product road map, operations, etc.  Send out a list of questions to partners 1-2 weeks in advance so they can think about the topics you've selected, seek input from staff or partners, prepare their responses, and possibly suggest additional topics you may not have considered.  This will greatly help in the quality of the input you receive.

Be sure presentations from members of your team are brief. If you are presenting for half of the meeting or more you are missing out on the value of your advisory board which is for advise and feedback from partners. Presentations from your staff should be used as launching points for discussion and feedback.

Be ready to discuss the classic advisory board topics of rules of engagement and commissions.  I'm working on another blog for these topics.

Miscellaneous

Here are a few miscellaneous thoughts that may be helpful:

Control the Meeting - It's your meeting. Control the conversation so excessive time is not spent talking about a specific customer problem from a partner. Likewise, cut off those staff presentations that go beyond the allotted time. Move the conversation so your entire agenda is covered.  

The Snowball Effect - People have a tendency to jump on the bandwagon and when one person makes a comment. Others will pile on and include affirmative anecdotes or statements until the topic snowballs into something much bigger than it is.  Just be aware of this and run comments through a filter by following up with individuals to gauge their thoughts on the topic after the meeting.

Make Travel Plans - Plan the travel for advisory board members. Do not ask them to plan their own travel and seek reimbursement. It's a hassle.

Follow Up

The value of any meeting is in the follow up. This is especially true in advisory boards because you must demonstrate to your board, all of whom are unpaid volunteers, that their voices were heard and their time invested in preparing for meetings is worthwhile. Send out an email after the meeting with committed action items and give a status report on the action items during the following meeting. This will be appreciated and sends a strong signal about the focus you have on the improvement of your channel program.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you.  Advisory boards are a big undertaking and if you choose to hold one, I hope it's extremely successful.

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